Sunday, 31 January 2016

Summarise, synthesis, simplify or suggest

The new GCSEs have brought with them some new types of assessments. One, in particular, is the summarising question on Paper 2 of the GCSE English language paper. Most exam boards have had some kind of summary question, but, strangely most of the exams I have prepared students for have lacked this type of direct summary question. Therefore, I am a bit at sea with this kind of question. It also doesn’t help that the text students are going to be asked to summarise will be texts from either the 19th or 20th centuries. The summary question tends to ask students to write down what is explicit and implicit in the text.

When trying to explain the summary task, we often get students to use their own words. However, I am starting to think that maybe we are being a little bit too simplistic with how we approach things. The recent AQA guidance even supports this simplistic approach. It suggests that teachers could teach students the phrase ‘we can infer from this...’ which is a phrase I have never uttered in my whole life. However, in English we have tended to adopt the ‘this suggests’ pattern of inference. Pick something and then say what it hints, suggests, implies, or, as usually is the case for most students, what it actually says. We use it again and again, but is it the most effective way to get the best inferences? My answer: no.

As people might have picked up on recently in the blog, I am mad about vocabulary at the moment and I think vocabulary is the answer. As teachers, we have used the quote/inference structure to build and develop the meaning in written responses. We get them to start a point. We get them to find a quote. We get them to say what the quote really suggests to us. We get them to explain their idea further. It is a laboured and slow development of an idea. It takes students ages to get to the meaty good points, and you know, as a marker, where to go for the marks. However, you probably have several sentences beforehand that wastes things. But, as a structure, we use it because students get there in the end. Plus, it gives weak students a formula to follow.
How could vocabulary change this structured approach? Well, let’s have a go at a piece of summary. 

 Summarise how the writer presents London in this extract.
This is not a dirty street, taken as a whole. The widow's house is one of the cleanest, and the widow's children match the house. The one house cleaner than the widow's is ruled by a despotic Scotchwoman, who drives every hawker off her whitened step, and rubs her door handle if a hand have rested on it. The Scotchwoman has made several attempts to accommodate "young men lodgers," but they have ended in shrill rows.
There is no house without children in this street, and the number of them grows ever and ever greater. Nine-tenths of the doctor's visits are on this account alone, and his appearances are the chief matter of such conversation as the women make across the fences. One after another the little strangers come, to live through lives as flat and colorless as the day's life in this street. Existence dawns, and the doctor-watchman's door knock resounds along the row of rectangular holes. Then a muffled cry announces that a small new being has come to trudge and sweat its way in the appointed groove. Later, the trotting of little feet and the school; the midday play hour, when love peeps even into this street; after that more trotting of little feet—strange little feet, new little feet--and the scrubbing, and the squalling, and the barren flower-pot; the end of the sooty day's work; the last home-coming; nightfall; sleep.

Source: ‘Tales of Mean Streets’ by Arthur Morrison
From the extract, you could probably get the following points:
1.       The streets are not all dirty.
2.       The widow and the Scotchwoman keep their houses clean.
3.       Every house has a child.
4.       The doctor’s visits coincide with the birth of a child.
5.       The child is born and the routine continues.

For most students, they will select these key points and repeat them. There are some small inferences made here, but on the whole these points can be easily selected from a text.

Then, typically, we get a student to select a quote to develop one of these ideas.

The one house cleaner than the widow's is ruled by a despotic Scotchwoman, who drives every hawker off her whitened step, and rubs her door handle if a hand have rested on it.

The students then goes: we can infer from this….
·         …the Scotchwoman is determined to be better than others.
·         …the Scotchwoman dislikes dirt and unhygienic people.
·         …she is obsessively clean.
·         …she doesn’t have much to do apart from clean.

To take this a bit further, we get a student to explore the text’s context to explore possible reasons for this inference. This where students justify ideas.

We can infer from this she is obsessively clean.
·         As she is Scottish, she might feel isolated and alone so the cleaning helps her to forget this.
·         She wants to fit in and doesn’t want people to criticise her.
·         She might not like where she lives so she wants to make it physically seem like she is living in a different place.

We could go on and on with developing these interpretations and inferences. Now, we might get to the ‘good stuff’ in time, but it doesn’t help with exam conditions. We need our students to make quick inferences and developed points. Sadly, I think if we follow this quote/inference structure, we will hinder our students’ abilities. We, possibly, need to see words as making the ‘inferences’.  When I read the text for the summary, I jotted down these words:

Pride, competitive, determined, cleanliness, hygiene, compromise, crowded, monotonous, hopeless, no escape, fixed, fate, repeated and routine

What if students read texts with this way of thinking? Of course, I am, I hope, a skilled reader, but I can make quick references. I could summarise in a word what is really going on in the extract. I can reduce it down to a word and make inferences at the same time.
Let’s take the word ‘pride’:
·         The streets are generally dirty and there is a lot of poverty, but these women want to make their world better by making it clean.
·         These women make the place better.
·         These women care.
·         These women feel as sense of duty.
·         These woman work against the stereotype of the poor being lazy and dirty.

When you start with one of the ‘inference words’ you start at a level that is a sophisticated level of understanding. You bypass all the fluff and get to the good stuff quickly.
The extract shows us the sense of pride and competitiveness several women have over the cleanliness of their homes, even though they live in a poor, neglected and impoverished area of London.
But, I think we have to get students to think in words, and I don’t think we do this as often as we should. We get students to think of words when they are describing things in writing, but not enough in reading analysis. And, I think to help students better, we need them to think in words and think of words quickly. We need to avoid that ummm …err….ummm…errr. We need them to be quick and sparky with words to describe things and we need to give them more words. I think starting with words helps develop interpretations and ideas. Does a student know what an idea or a point is? No, but they can give you a word to describe what is happening in a text.

This week a student of mine wrote about Curley’s wife’s death. He used these words:

animalistic, clumsy, rushed, panic driven, without skill

This student floats around a D grade, but these word helped to develop the quality of his ideas almost instantly. The great thing is that these words appeared in the opening line of his paragraph. If students like him start with the ‘inference words’, then they a more likely to do better with the rest of the writing. All too often, as teachers we read directionless writing and it is only the last paragraph where the student gets. ‘Inference words’ start the complex thought from the beginning.

So what am I going to do from now on to help support summarising?  Here’s an example:

On Sunday morning one or two heads of families appear in wonderful black suits, with unnumbered creases and wrinklings at the seams. At their

sides and about their heels trot the unresting little feet, and from under painful little velvet caps and straw hats stare solemn little faces towelled to a polish. Thus disposed and arrayed, they fare gravely through the grim little streets to a grim Little Bethel where are gathered together others in like garb and attendance; and for two hours they endure the frantic menace of hell-fire.

Most of the men, however, lie in shirt and trousers on their beds and read the Sunday paper; while some are driven forth--for they hinder the housework--to loaf, and await the opening of the beer-shop round the corner. Thus goes Sunday in this street, and every Sunday is the same as every other Sunday, so that one monotony is broken with another. For the women, however, Sunday is much as other days, except that there is rather more work for them. The break in their round of the week is washing day.

1.       Get students to find examples to support these words: uncomfortable, forced, duty, pride, boredom, awkward, apathy, repetition   

2.       Get students to spot the odd ‘inference word’ out when describing the text: laziness, repetition, smugness  

3.       Track an inference. Highlight all the aspects that show the people didn’t want to attend church.

4.       Get students to select from a series of options to describe the text:
Comfortable / Uncomfortable
Pride / Shame
Enjoyment / Boredom

5.       Give students statement to decide if they agree or disagree with it.
a.       The children don’t like going to church because they can’t see their friends.
b.      The women don’t like having the men in the house sometimes.
c.       The men like to go to the pub to be with their friends.

In the beginning, there was the word and I think in the beginning of analysis there should be words. I have to get better at helping students articulating complex ideas, and thoughts, and the words are the secret to doing this. If we can get students to use words to infer meaning from the start, then more complex thought is going to happen. This is where ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’ is for me a load of baloney. Describing is seen as a basic skill, when it is in effect the most useful and important. You need to be able to describe complex ideas before you can explain them.

Thanks for reading,

P.S. I know 'inference words' sounds bad; I will think of something better, one day.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Thanks for the memories...

The new style of GCSE has meant that the teaching of English has changed. The closed book exam has meant that there has been a big emphasis on learning quotes and knowing the set texts. No, really knowing the set texts. Added to that, there is the new emphasis on terminology. In fact, I’d struggle to find a question, apart from the summary question, that is devoid of any reference to terminology. It is all about the terminology.  And, when you look at where the terminology is referred to in the mark schemes, you see it is fairly low, meaning students need to be able to spot a technique before they have a chance of getting a high mark. So it is about techniques, techniques and techniques.   

One of the problems I have always found with students is the inherent ability to forget terminology daily, weekly and annually. I know when a Year 7 arrives they can spot a simile and alliteration at fifty paces, but when I they get to Year 10 they can’t spot it when it is looking them in the eyes with a big sticker on it, saying ‘I am a simile’. They have the knowledge, but they aren’t quick at recalling it. The knowledge isn’t at the top of their brain. It is buried under all the names for the parts of the plants, terms for DT and few mnemonics from Maths. I want to avoid conversations like this in lessons:

Teacher: What device is the writing using here?
Student: Dunno.
Teacher: Oh look it uses ‘like a’.  
Student: Is it alliteration?
Teacher: No, look its comparing one thing to another.
Student: Dunno.
Teacher: It begins with an ‘s’.  
Student: Symbol?
Teacher:  No. Give me strength. It is a simile. A simile.

As a subject, English hasn’t always had a drain on memory recall. Look at Year 11 students revising for exams. You see students have books and revision cards for Science and History, but for English they tend to have a few notes. We could say it is because the students see the subject as one that is concentrated on skills. They know they can read. They know they can write. They just, occasionally, think there is no need to revise for the subject.

The strengthening of the new GCSEs will mean a change in knowledge retention for schools. In my opinion, it will see subjects working harder than ever before to make sure things stick. One of my concerns for the next few years is making sure students have quick recall of literary terms. I want to make sure that students have a much faster recall of grammar terms and literary devices so that we don’t have the ‘buffering’ effect of waiting forty seconds as they rearrange the mental furniture of their brain and find the word ‘pathetic fallacy’ under the names for the bones in a leg. Like the timetables, we want the information to be retrieved quickly and now. So, what am I planning on doing?

Well, I was inspired by James Theo’s blog on introducing 19th Century fiction.

In particular, it was his use of memory aids and visual memory aids for literary devices. We are going to expect students to read complex texts, understand them and then spot literary devices in a short space of time in an exam. Now, I know we shot down VAK a long time ago, but the V in it interests me a lot.

Over the past term, I have been teaching ‘Lord of the Flies’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’. Aside from teaching them stuff, I have been using images alongside the reading of the books. The images have been used in two ways.

[1] For each chapter / stave, I have generated a selection of six images. The latest version of PowerPoint means I don’t have to spend too long searching for images. The images were a mixture of events, similes or aspects featured in the text. At the start of a lesson, students would have to identify where the image comes from the chapter. Then, they would explain the writer’s reason for including it and the image’s symbolism. The easiest bit of resource making ever.
The images will then be used a second time, when we get to the end of the novel, revising key events. Then, to extend the learning further we will make connections between these aspects across the whole novel.

Then, in Year 11, when we read the novel again for revision purposes, we will use the images before reading the stave again. Students will try to place the images in order and explain what they convey in the stave.

I like the idea of using one resource many times and I think using images this way helps to keep the planning and resources down, but at the same time I am working on making the memory of the chapter / stave stick. One thing I am quite adamant on is that the images should not be photographs or stills from a film. They should be symbols of the images and not direct representation, where possible. When students are faced with endless streams of films, TV and websites, it takes a very powerful still to have a lasting impact. A drawing is something different.  

[2]   Each writer has a particular style and a bank of techniques they regularly use. I made a basic list of technique usually used by Dickens and Golding and then made a set of images. I printed the images out as flashcards. Then, for a series of lessons, I made students name the technique based on the picture. After that, students were able to reel off a list of techniques for the writer. We then applied that list to analysis. Students started analysing a text with the foreknowledge of what to expect.

The great thing about this is that students found additional techniques, which we added to our images. The bank of techniques is only the starting point. It gives them a concrete starting position which is better than the abstract, ‘what do you notice?’, approach.

I have enjoyed this approach because I now have a different approach to teaching novels / books / plays. If I take the image techniques of Golding and compare it to that of another writer, students will be able to spot the technical differences and similarities easily. I can also revise techniques constantly in a concrete manner. Instead of recalling the long-lost definition of a technique, I am airing that technique weekly and daily. In fact, I am going to use the images for our unit on travel writing. I am not going to write a list of techniques to include. Instead, I will get students to select their techniques and draw them. I will keep going back to those images. I will keep testing their knowledge.

The images will be everywhere and at every possible moment in lessons.

The use of pictograms has a lot of potential in our subject. What if we taught students symbols associated with literary devices from Year 7? We then revise that each year and test it every year.  Surely, by the time we get to Year 11 students will have a secure and automatic recall of the device and concept. We want students to learn, but it the holding of the knowledge that is the greatest problem these days. The other subjects are vying for brain space and I think we need to stake out patch in the right hemisphere and frontal lobe with a big picture.

Thanks for reading,


P.S. Check out James’ blog. His pictures are much better than mine. 

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Vocabulary: Oleaginous is the word that you heard. It’s got groove. It’s got meaning.

Sir, I would say that Piggy is a masochistic character, who, in a way, contrasts with the sadistic Jack.

That one comment signalled a shift in understanding for a student in the class this week. In fact, it was a massive shift in terms of understanding. Without the words ‘masochistic’ and ‘sadistic’, the student would probably be saying the following sentence:   

Sir, I would say that Piggy is a weak character, who, in a way, contrasts with the cruel Jack.

One comment shows a complex understanding of the characters and the other shows a superficial grasp of the characters. I’d like to say it took hours of complex teaching: it didn’t. The sheet below helped the individual make the comment. It then was followed by examples of the student telling me how Piggy provided opportunities for people to be cruel to him and examples of how Jack let slip his enjoyment at being cruel to other characters.


A brutal or inhuman contact


A violently cruel or as a wild beast, person or aspect



A desire to inflict injury, harm or suffering on another because of meanness or an impulse



Bad tempered or violent

A Av

To take enjoyment from being cruel


To act without pity or compassion



To take enjoyment from being cruel to oneself through own actions or another’s actions.



Hardened or unsympathetic

A V 

To make morally bad or evil



To describe a cruel, inhuman, savage aspect


Not human or lacking  human feelings such as sympathy, warmth or compassion


Showing no mercy or compassion



Eager to shed blood


Wanting to kill a person


A desire to harm, annoy, frustrate or humiliate another person


Natural, blunt or underdeveloped


Having the characteristics of a wild animal



To be educated, refined and enlightened.


To not be educated or cultured

V A 

Showing a lack of social breeding; unmannerly; rude

Previously, I described this idea of teaching vocabulary through synonyms and groups of associated words. For the past two weeks, I have been trying it out in classes, and thoroughly enjoying it. It has, if I am honest, ‘raised my game’ in the classroom. By that, I mean it has developed the way I talk in the class. It has given me a script to work from. It has given me new elements to put in a lesson that I usually wouldn’t use. It has become a cohesive device.

The format for using these vocabulary sheet is quite simple:

1: Give student the sheet.

2: Student tries to draw the definitions of all twenty words in a simple, Pictionary style sketch.

3: The whole class play a game of Pictionary.

4: The class play a game of Blockbusters to recall the definitions. What C is an adjective to describe something natural, blunt or underdeveloped?

5: Students learn the words for homework.

6: Next lesson, students complete a multiple choice test on definitions.

7: Next lesson, students complete a test on definitions. What C is an adjective to describe something natural, blunt or underdeveloped?

8: Next lesson, students write a paragraph with as many of the words as possible.

I might change and vary the format of the lessons, but there is a lot of repetition and all the time I am asking students to give me a definition. I keep going back to the new words. I use them to drive lessons, discussions and work. Who is the most feral character in ‘The Lord of the Flies’? Remind me again, what does feral mean?   

What I like about having this group of words, is that I now have developed a kind of sociolect. A way of speaking that only the class and I share. There have been numerous times when another teacher has entered the room and we have spoken in the equivalent of parseltongue. At the core of what I have done, is repetition and different contexts. The drawing context has helped students to visualise the idea and convert the idea from a concrete to abstract notion. The meaning context helps students to attach the word to the right meaning and identify how the word differs to other words. The talking context helps students to secure the pronunciation of the word and to see how the can fit it into a phrase or sentence. The writing context helps students to secure the words use in writing and helps them to use the words for meaning.

In the past, I’d say that my vocabulary as a teacher has always concentrated on clarity. I might punctuate what I say with some high level vocabulary, but for the most my vocabulary was Standard English and not that varied and complex. Occasionally, I’d sprinkle an advanced word in a lesson, but that would depend heavily on the context. I, however, was too concerned with the notion that I make everyone understand me. Having this bank of twenty words, I have felt empowered and felt that actually the speed at which I get to complex and challenging ideas is far quicker than before.  

 Imagine giving a person directions to their nearest city centre but you can only use the words ‘right’ and ‘left’. It would take a long time and there would be lots of vague bits and there is a strong chance that the person would not get to the city centre. Add words like ‘roundabout’, ‘junction’, ‘traffic lights’ and you’ll stand a better chance of getting there. Then, add words like specific street names and you’ll get the person there, precisely. I think we are like this with vocabulary in the classroom. We often use ‘left’ or ‘right’ when actually we need precise words or phrases like street names such as ‘Bridge Street’.

When I think of how vocabulary is taught, I worry. Look at how we phrase it. Word of the Week. Wow Words. We concentrate on individual meanings of words or a bank of randomly selected words. We rarely look at the context for using the words and we rarely look at the sociolect. We make endless lists of words. Lists for analysis. Lists for talking about poems. Lists for talking about photosynthesis. Maybe, we need to look at the language. Maybe each aspect has its own form of parseltongue and we have to actively look at how we get students to understand and use this form of parseltongue instead of common tongue.   

Of course, words are only one part of the language we use in the classroom and it is the easiest to pick up on. There is also the grammar and syntax of the language used. Also, how often do we look at the language in a lesson and it is focused on clarity and all students making progress? Perhaps we are being counterproductive with language. Start with the basics first isn’t always the best principle to work with. To learn a language, it is best to get a few basics and then immerse yourself in the language. Surely, we should be immersing students in rich worlds of vocabulary rather than trickling brook of the odd word here and there.

Complex and precise vocabulary should be used all the time and that starts and ends with the teacher. We should be working harder to get students to speak in our own form of parseltongue, but first we must be clear what it is first. Sadly, we have a common tongue that is standard, generic and imprecise for the job we need it to do. The common tongue is helpful at times but it will not lift up their souls with the beauty of words nor raise their academic success through understanding.  

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 9 January 2016

Why ‘no’ is a swearword in teaching and Twitter teaching?

On Twitter there has been a furore over two opposing ideas in teaching. There has, to be honest, been a lot of disagreements. Like the typical coward that I am, I hid in tub of Pringles, leftover from Christmas. At the same time, I found a box of uneaten chocolates to hide in and a little bit of space in the cracker box. I was ‘thinking inside the box’ rather than ‘thinking outside the box’ and the one thing I was thinking was: no. No. NO.

A long time ago, I read a book called ‘The Dice Man’ by Luke Rhinehart. I didn’t enjoy it and it hasn’t made me want to read the sequels. It was too dark and unpleasant for my liking, but it did have an interesting premise: what if you made all the choices in your life according to roll of a dice? Each number represented a choice. I often use the approach for getting dressed in the morning. It gives people more choice in their decision making and it stops them just using a simple yes or no. In fact, there seems to be a fad of books out there about decisions. There are books about people who say yes to everything. There are books about people who say no to everything. Personally, I prefer books about people who say yes and no at different points in their life. You might call them novels.

Anyway, lots of people have been talking about opposing ideas, like phonics or traditionalism. There have been lots of yeses and a lots of noes (nos or noes is acceptable- I’ve checked). And, I am sad to say, that things got personal, nasty and, in some cases, aggressive. I believe one person spilt their coffee on purpose. Allegedly.  The yeses and the noes became so powerful that people became teams and started pointing fingers at others for not being on their team. I comfortably sat getting splinters on a fence. Then, I hid in a box of chocolates, again.

Disagreeing has become a bit of a problem in teaching, I think. For the most, teachers are positive, and optimistic people. You have to be with the current situation in education. And, this positivity can have a negative effect. Because we are positive, we agree a lot. We say yes. We do things. We carry on.  This ends up with us doing lots of things that maybe we don’t need to do. New idea. Yes. New idea. Yes. New idea. Yes. I think you can see the problem!

I love a good meeting, because I love a good natter. But, what I love is a person who says ‘no’. As a leader, that no voice is just as important as the yes voice. They are both important for me making a decision and acting. The problem with me, as a leader, is that I have a lot of ideas, passion and enthusiasm - I have an aged Blue Peter presenter air about me. Without the no people, we’d be getting students to write on slate in all lessons, because that would give students an authentic understanding of Victorian education and this would help them understand and cope stave two of ‘A Christmas Carol’. Err, Chris, do you think that might cause us a problem with marking? A bit heavy carrying thirty sheets of slate. The no voices ground me. They aren’t the whinging, moaning, disagreeable enemies of reason; they are the helpful, intuitive, pragmatic voices of reason. The yeses and the noes both want the same thing: to teach students the best way. As life didn’t provide us with the rule book on teaching (I’m sure David Didau will get there one day), teachers, heads of departments and leaders need to tiptoe between two or more contrasting ideas and make a judgement and decide what is best.   

There are two teachers I can recall from a previous school I worked in who I thought were brilliant in a meeting. They taught very differently and in different areas, but they were happy to disagree. While a discussion was going on, I’d be there happily nodding my head, as I agreed to working on a Saturday and triple marking work. Nods head again. These two teachers would look stern and challenge the idea. They were the height of professionalism, but they disagreed and explained their reasons and ideas. We, thankfully, didn’t work on a Saturday and we, thankfully, didn’t triple mark.

I am lucky because in my department I have people who say yes, people who say no, people who say yes first and then no, people who say no first and then say yes. Not everybody is a yes person and that is important. I suppose, if I am honest, when employing staff in the future, I will be thinking about the person’s capacity to say no. All the yeses and noes make me, I hope, a better leader. They give me balance. So we have meetings like this: new idea. No, but….new and even better idea.  

There are so many ideas out there and I add to the collective dirge. There is probably more out there than there ever has been. There are more and more voices. The problem comes when people don’t filter these out or explore the reasoning behind them. There are just so many ideas. Perfect teaching might include some of these ideas, but they don’t include all of them.

Also, we must always make sure that we don’t always focus on agreeing all the time. There has to be some disagreement. Maybe, we should call it reasoning instead. That is what I see people doing most of the time on Twitter, reasoning. They aren’t disagreeing. They are reasoning with it. They might agree or disagree with it later but for the most that is what they are doing, reasoning. Do I have to fully commit to an idea or philosophy? Maybe I will in a minute, a day, a year, a lifetime, but not right now.

Going back to ‘The Dice Man’. Next new idea you have in a meeting, on Twitter or on your own. Roll a dice…

1: I agree.

2: I agree with most of it.  

3: I agree with only a tiny bit.

4: I neither agree nor disagree.

5: I disagree with a bit of it.

6: I disagree wholeheartedly I want to destroy it before it destroys.

Let’s have more disagreements in schools and more noes. But maybe we shouldn’t be so hung-up with the word ‘no’ and we should call it for what it is, ‘reasoning’. By saying no, I am not saying your views on teaching are worthless and pointless, but I am reasoning whether the idea is good or not in my context. Schools are, and should, be like chocolate boxes. Everybody has their compartment and room. Everybody is different. However, they are all have the same chocolate recipe. If we all had the same centre, it would be boring. You need to have a Turkish delight or coffee centre, even if the majority dislike it. But they have a place.   

My mother always told me, life was like a box of chocolates, but steer clear from the strawberry ones- they are mine!